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Sunday, April 18, 2021
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PEDRO DE ALVARADO Y CONTRERAS – born in Extremadura, Spain in 1485; died in Guadalajara, Spain in 1541.

Spanish conquistador and governor of Guatemala. He participated in the conquest of Cuba (1511), in Juan de Grijalva’s exploration of the coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the conquest of Mexico led by Hernán Cortés. He is considered the conquistador of much of Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Although renowned for his skill as a soldier, Alvarado is known also for the cruelty of his treatment of native populations, and mass murders committed in the subjugation of the native peoples of Mexico.

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Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples were attacked in 1523 by a military force led by a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras, who had been sent on this violent expedition by the one Hernán Cortés, who was headquartered in Mexico City after conquering Moctezuma and the Aztec empire.

The important thing to note about Alvarado’s attack, for the purposes of this column, is that it was an overland strike. Alvarado’s force marched from Mexico to Guatemala. Alvarado never saw Half Moon Caye, the Blue Hole, or the Belize Barrier Reef.

The British history books say that Belize was first entered by Europeans when a Scottish pirate named Wallace discovered the place in 1638. I suppose “discovery” involved running into the fabulous Half Moon Caye, 55 miles east of Belize City. Belize became a hideout inside the Barrier Reef for British (and French) pirates who were attacking Spanish ships headed from Mexico and Cuba back to Spain with the wealth hijacked from their “New World” possessions.

I believe the steam engine was invented in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Everything that was happening on the seas before that involved vessels powered by sails. So there were the Spaniards, Alvarado and those who came after him, grabbing the wealth of Guatemala’s highlands, and basically ignorant of developments in the settlement of Belize, whose European fortune-seekers had come here by sea from the east.

It seems to me that the Maya people of this region – Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, were more terrestrial than maritime. The Maya were more into paddling canoes than sailing ships on the high seas, where their lifestyle and perspective were concerned. The British, Spanish, and French, on the other hand, were seafaring Europeans.

In order to establish a picture of how things were after Alvarado in Guatemala and Wallace in Belize, we may see the Maya in this region as being between the Spanish in Guatemala and Mexico, on the one hand, and the British in Belize, on the other.

Baron Bliss’ yacht, Sea King, would have been a vessel with an inboard motor. It was not a sailing boat. But all the fishermen with whom the Baron came in contact in Belize would have been in sailing boats. During his brief stay in British Honduras before he died on March 9, 1926, Baron Bliss remained in his yacht in the Belize City harbor the whole time. But his main interest was in sport fishing, and he would have been talking with the local fishermen a lot about where to find and hook big fish for exciting fights. In his will, the Baron expressed his appreciation to those Belizean fishermen by financing an annual sailing regatta for them to compete against each other and win prizes.

There were no pirates in Belize in 1926. The pirates and their descendants had become involved in the harvesting of hardwoods, first logwood, and later most prominently mahogany, from the forests of Belize. But many of the fishermen based in the capital, Belize Town, and down south in villages like Mullins River, Placencia, Sittee River, and Monkey River, would have had ancestors who had been British pirates. These Belize fishermen were not white, but they did not think of themselves as black.

When I was growing up here in the 1950s, fishing was not a really profitable occupation. This lobster fishing bonanza would not have begun to take place until the 1960s. And there were no outboard motors in Belize until the latter part of the 1950s. If I am wrong, I stand to be corrected.

All along the banks of the Haulover Creek on both sides, there used to be dockyards which were in the business of building, maintaining, and repairing the sailboats of Belize, which not only fished, but moved passengers and cargo up and down the coast.

Today, such dockyards are few and far between. All the sailboats used by Belize’s fishermen now carry outboard motors. Sailing as a pure skill and art has been diminished by the coming of outboard motor technology.

At some point in the 1970s the Baron Bliss sailing regatta on March 9 began to be taken over by the sailing doreys, owned by Belize City residents like Dean Lindo, Eckert Lewis, and George Brown, but captained and “crewed”by young men from Gales Point Manatee, which is 18 miles south of Belize City.

The late Collet Maheia, Sr., the sand lighter magnate, was from Mullins River. Mullins River is 27 miles south of Belize City. Before the 1970s, Mullins River was as far south as the Baron Bliss regatta competitors came from.

There has never been any Ninth of March involvement from Dangriga, and we Belizeans know that the Garifuna men are some outstanding sailors. Perhaps the 36-mile journey from Dangriga to Belize City was too expensive. Remember that the value of the Baron Bliss race prizes was decreasing each year because of inflation. By the time I was growing up, the prize money could not pay for rigging the sailboats for the regatta.

But the competitive spirit remained in the fishing and sailing community here. My father, and neighbors like Artie Barrow, used to race “grape leaf” boats in the canal near Bolton Bridge as children. In the capital city, there was a competitive sailing culture, and it went way back, to my mind, to how we began as a settlement, with piracy. It was vital for a pirate’s sailing ship to be faster than his prey, from whom he would rob. It was even more vital for the pirate’s ship to be fast for him to escape the ships of the authorities whose aim was to capture and hang him. I’m just saying.

I spent all my youth hearing stories about a legendary sailing boat here named Poison Arrow. To the best of my knowledge, it never competed in a race because there was no class in which it could compete. I think the Arrow was around forty feet in length, unique in size here. It was a sailing sloop built by one Gigi Young (Henry Young’s uncle), I am told by my dad, at St. George’s Caye. The Arrow, to repeat, was a legend which came out of Placencia, which is 70 miles south of the capital city, a long trip by sail. There was no road access to “Point” back then. I say the Arrow came out of Placencia because the Young’s were Placencia people. My dad said Gigi Young worked all by himself, with an adze, to build the great Poison Arrow.

So this has been some background to my column last week about Estrella, Cruzita, and Aventurera. I’ve already been informed, and I’m grateful to have been enlightened, that these boats were owned by the Rodriguez, Marin and Alamilla families of Caye Caulker. I have an appointment to talk with a source who will give me more details.

In places like the United States, it is only rich people who own sailing yachts. In British Honduras/Belize, many boats which competed on Ninth of March spent the rest of the year as fishing vessels. But again, in my childhood there were boats built only to race, basically. The owners were middle-class (?) Belizeans like the aforementioned Artie Barrow, Bill Bowman, Denys Bradley, Karlie Menzies, Telford Vernon, and so on. These were l6 to 18 foot sloops and Seagull-type craft. I guess you would have to include my dad and my maternal uncle, Buck Belisle, amongst the boat-owning/racing crowd. And how about “Russian” Smith? Tell me more, senior citizens.

The Belizean sailing culture, to my mind, was the big difference between the histories of relatively landlocked Guatemala and seafaring Belize. Today, wealthy Guatemalans have many yachts, and they actively seek the “use and enjoyment” of Belize’s seas and cayes. This is an intriguing development, and one about which most Belizeans know very little. We will learn more at the International Court of Justice, I do believe.

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